Norman Osborn is unusual as a comic book archenemy, because he essentially disappeared from the series for 25 years, killed off in Amazing Spider-Man #122, after doing the nastiest thing any major comic book villain has ever done to their nemesis. Until the end of the Clone Saga, he was essentially a legacy villain, haunting the hero from beyond the grave. And then he came back, instantly clarifying the top roster of Spider-Man villains: Doctor Octopus, Venom and the Norman Osborn Green Goblin.
There’s a lot to like about the character. He’s an incredibly strong individual, with a tendency to be many steps ahead of his opponents. He’s actually benefited from his resurrection, now that he can remember that he’s the Green Goblin for more than two issues at a time, allowing his plots to be more impressive. He’s able to control his image, and what others think of him very well. He told Spider-Man his identity, and later outed himself as the Green Goblin. He also loves what he does, which is rare and fun for a supervillain. His connection to Peter Parker is also on a far more personal level between most villains, and their heroic archenemies.
He does have some weaknesses as a character. The villain we see in today’s comics is a bit derivative of the likes of John Byrne’s Lex Luthor, crossed with the Joker. It’s inconsistent with the Silver Age portrayal of Norman Osborn as a decent guy, who just went a little nuts sometimes. And with “Sins Past” he may just have become involved in one too many conspiracies.
Still, he’s a great character with the potential to become more compelling in the future. I am especially looking forward to his first clash with the Superior Spider-Man.
Some readers are bothered by his resurrection, feeling that it diminishes the story in which he died, otherwise one of the best in Spider-Man history. I’m conflicted on this. He’s been effective since his return, but his death scene was exceptional. A few years ago, I proposed a compromise: Suggest that the real Norman Osborn had died, and that the character in the comics was just a clone. It seems to me that this discovery would not change the current character’s motivations one bit, and thus wouldn’t really limit the writers that much (hell, it might allow for some new stories dealing with the psychological insights.) And this might appease the fans—although there are less of them after a decade of good Norman Osborn Green Goblin stories—upset that he came back in the first place.
One problem is that it would once again muddy the waters in regards to a major Spider-Man villain. Norman Osborn was the bad guy in the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man film, and the Amazing Spider-Man remake seeded a new version of the villain. A clone would not have had the high points that the original Norman Osborn had. He would just be another legacy character, instead of the man responsible for several of the biggest surprises in the history of superhero comics.
An advantage with revealing that Norman Osborn is a clone is that it would be easier to retcon Sins Past. It could be established that a duplicate of Norman Osborn’s was implanted with ridiculous memories of an affair with Gwen Stacy, as part of a plot by the Jackal, a mad scientist obsessed with her and with making clones.
It was unique in the Spider-Man comics when one of the first major villains stayed dead. But there’s something to be said for having new adventures with that same villain as the antagonist.